R&B's latest diva sells her soul


September 26, 2001



For well over a decade now, mainstream R&B has been sacrificing its soul in a greedy embrace of slick pop production values, hiding the heart behind a glossy digital sheen and stressing show-biz superficiality over sweaty passion.

Rising up in opposition to that trend, the so-called neo-soul or "natural R&B" movement spearheaded by Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Common, the Roots and D'Angelo has been one of the most energizing developments in popular music.

Not surprisingly, we are seeing a new group of artists who are trying to straddle both worlds in an effort to rake in twice as much cash. Call it neo-neo-soul or unnatural R&B; either way, it's led by much touted New York newcomer Alicia Keys, who played a disappointing and ridiculously short set sponsored by local R&B powerhouse WGCI-FM (107.5) Monday night at the Chicago Theatre.

Groomed to be the next Whitney Houston-style, megastar pop progeny of the soulless former Arista/ now J Records honcho Clive Davis, the 20-year-old singer-songwriter is being hailed as much for her Gap-model good looks as for her musical talents, which have been considerably overstated by boosters. Keys' voice is not particularly strong (unlike Scott's) or distinctive (unlike Gray's or Badu's), and she attacks her Kurzweil piano synthesizer as if she's hammering a line of stubborn nails into a concrete wall.

After a pompous introduction in which she smashed through some Beethoven while her three backing vocalists chanted her name, Keys tried to strike a groove with her nine-piece band (as an obnoxious, pint-sized MC continually tried to inject himself in all the wrong places). But she never caught the rhythm or captured a convincing vibe.

Songs such as "Girlfriend," "Fallin'," "Rock With U" and "Jane Doe" were alternately big and bombastic or theatrically pared down and introspective. In both modes, Keys seemed to be play-acting rather than feeling the material. Even worse, her unremarkable reading of Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," a classy gesture in the context of Friday's "America's Heroes" telethon, instead played like a blatant bid to tug at the heartstrings when she repeated the song at the end of her set Monday.

Tickets for the show were not cheap, but Keys treated the performance like a promotional gig, delivering a mere 10 tunes in a little under an hour. I can only conclude that the fans who cheered her onstage and who have helped make her debut album "Songs in a Minor" double platinum have never heard of the other artists cited above. Compared to them, Keys is a carbon copy of the genuine article.

Opening the show by singing off key (for which he apologized) to canned digital backing tracks was another wannabe "natural" heartthrob, the New Jersey rapper-crooner Jaheim. Trying to sell his "Ghetto Love" by pouring water over his muscle-bound torso and ripping his shirt off--he certainly couldn't do it by singing alone--he perfectly illustrated his shortcomings by stumbling through a cover of "A House Is Not a Home." That sorry effort should prompt either Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston to smack him, if ever they should meet.